February 8, 2011 by

Writing Historical Fantasy: a Conversation with Jules Watson

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Guest Post by Anna Elliott:  A Conversation with Jules Watson.   

Jules Watson writes amazing, lyric historical fantasy set in the Dark Age Celtic world.  Her newest book, The Raven Queen, will be out next month.  And she has an absolutely fantastic historical fiction workshop on her website.  If you write historical fiction or fantasy, go check it out immediately, it’s one of the best resources for writers in the genre I’ve seen.  http://juleswatson.com/fictionworkshop.html 

Where do your ideas for a book start?  With a known historical fact or myth?  A ‘scene’ that pulls you into a story? A particular character?  Or maybe none of those?

The Raven Queen and my previous book The Swan Maiden were inspired by the heroines of two ancient Irish myths. For The Swan Maiden, I had always adored the Celti story of Deirdre of the Sorrows, which is tragic, but so beautiful, too. Queen Maeve in The Raven Queen just sounded fascinating – a battle-queen who started the most famous war in Irish myth. Though in the original tales Deirdre and Maeve were very different  – Deirdre a hapless pawn, Maeve a bloodthirsty ruler – I immediately saw their similarities. They were both at the mercy of a harsh male world, subject to men’s desire and lust for control. They both broke free to forge lives of their own and wield their own power. I could imagine two complementary stories about women taking charge of their fates and following their hearts against immense odds.  My first series, The Dalriada Trilogy, was more inspired by history. I wanted to write books about the ancient Celts, and the Roman invasions in the first century AD provided a driver for the plot, plus lots of baddies to fight against my goodies.

All the research involved in writing historical fiction/fantasy can be overwhelming to contemplate when you first begin.  Firstly, how do you recommend the beginning historical novelist start the research process?  And secondly, how do you know you’ve done enough research and are ready to start writing?

Start with the general, and narrow down to the specific. If you dive in too far, you might drown in academic papers and never write anything. Also, you might do a whole load of research you don’t use. I studied archaeology at college, so had a general knowledge of the Celts. Once I decided to set my books in Scotland, I got more specific with research, narrowing it to the UK. Once I decided on the Roman invasion, I went after specific information about the Roman Empire and Scotland at that time. How much? Only enough to get an idea of the era, main characters and plot – then start writing, or you will procrastinate. Research triggers off plot ideas, and you do need to know the “daily life” of your characters, so that you don’t break the flow of a scene to check what food your heroine grabs while rushing out the door. However, once past that baseline…jump in! Get going on a great plot and engaging characters, because that will make the book a success. This saves time, too, because as you write, you discover the facts you need to finish a scene, and won’t get stuck on irrelevant details.  The characters should not be actors in a play, walking about your beautiful, perfectly realized setting. History can drive the plot from underneath, but historical details should only be there to support an emotional roller-coaster of a story.

How do you set about creating characters who are authentic to your historical world?

Confession…I don’t try to! My previous characters sprang from themes I wanted to explore about love, lust for power, or forgiveness. One reason I wrote about first-century Celts is that we know so little about them, so I could (mostly) make them behave as I wanted them to. I therefore made my first heroine Rhiann a noblewoman and priestess so she had enough freedom to get into some risky and exciting scrapes. I molded her to fit my book, not history. In the Irish books, I did need to work around what is set down in myth. In the old tales, Maeve from The Raven Queen is a warrior, but a real woman would not be as physically strong as the men around her. To believably win sword-fights I had to make her rely on her intelligence and agility instead. She is a ruling queen, but that would have been rare in the Celtic world, so I had to figure out good reasons why her people might choose her. This is not as easy in well-recorded time periods, but the most compelling characters flout the rules, anyway. Rebellion and conflict maketh a plot – toeing the line does not.

Your books have such a rich wealth of historical detail and yet completely avoid the dreaded info-dump.  How do you manage the balance?

Thanks! The thing to remember is that you are an author, not a historian. You are hoping to entertain people with a great yarn, so the story comes first. Despite your reams of research, only put historical details in if they advance the plot or develop the characters. Keep the pacing up and slip bits and pieces of historical detail in among exciting action. Have your heroine stomp into her father’s chamber and get involved in a terrible argument, whereupon she grabs a paperweight off his desk and throws it at the window. Her mother puts down whatever she is doing and gets up, nervously smoothing her dress. The focus is on the argument, but as your heroine storms about you get to describe what she is wearing, what her father has on his desk, and even what kind of windows they have (glass she shatters; shutters the paperweight bounces off; or stone openings through which the paperweight soars?).

You also show your readers, without pausing to describe them, that your heroine is fiery and unafraid of her father, and that her mother is timid. Take the minimum amount of historical information readers need to engage with the story, and drip feed it in when something else is happening, so they hardly notice: they just absorb.

Celtic Britain is one of those periods about which we know comparatively little for certain, which means that the historical novelist is forced to fill in the blanks at least bit.   What strikes me most about your books is how seamlessly you blend the historical facts with your own expansion of the known details.  How do you pull that off? How do you make that leap from the often scanty historical and archaeological record to a fully-realized historical world that lives and breathes?

The key is to immerse myself fully in the details of the Celtic world I am evoking.  In every scene, if I can see, smell, taste, and hear everything around my characters, then history and fiction will merge – because I believe it, the reader will. If you can’t “feel” that, then you may need to do more research, or try another era. I also use logic to extrapolate from fact to fiction. For example, in poor, rural areas of Scotland, the way of life did not change much from the first to the nineteenth centuries. A native herb used by a farmer’s wife on an isolated Scottish island in the nineteenth century was most likely used by ancient Celtic housewives, too. Of course, in the UK, some plants and animals are native, and others came with the Romans, Saxons, Normans, or later peoples. You need to know those things when working backwards, but you have more information than you think you do. There are only so many ways to skin a cat – or a sheep!

5 Responses to Writing Historical Fantasy: a Conversation with Jules Watson

  1. Pingback: The Raven Queen

  2. Jules Watson

    Hi Sarah – thanks for posting this! I appreciate it.

    Hi Genie, glad you found me again in the end. I hope you enjoy the rest of the story you missed! I wish you tons of good luck with your own book(s) – they sound very interesting.

  3. Genie of the Shell

    Wow, I’m so glad I saw this post! I had started reading the first book in the Dalriada Trilogy years ago, then had to take it back to the library and ended up forgetting the title and author of the book. But I often thought about the story and wished I could finish it.

    Now I am writing my own historical fantasy novel set in the Dark Ages (based on Germanic people) and would love to do more reading in and about the genre. I will be purchasing some of Watson’s books (so I make sure I finish them and can read them over again!) and will check out the fiction workshop. Thanks for the great resource.

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